In search of Leonard Wilson Roane (1874 –1912): death in the shipyard

image of Leonard Wilson Roane

Leonard Wilson Roane, circa 1900

I’ve been pretty fortunate tracing Leonard Wilson Roane, my paternal great grandfather’s, life through a rich array of digitized records. His brothers’ and sister’s descendants have also kindly provided snippets of information about his parents and his siblings. I have been blessed in that regard. Until I began this journey, I knew nothing about the Roane side of my father’s family. I’m glad to say that’s not the case any more!

So, I’ve been fortunate to uncover knowledge about my great-grandfather in a wider context. What I have found next to impossible to uncover are the circumstances of how he died.

But first thing first.

Life in Varina, Henrico County, VA

image of the Immediate family tree for Leonard Wilson Roane

Immediate family tree for Leonard Wilson Roane

Leonard was the youngest child born to Patrick Henry Roane, Sr (1833 – 1907) and Susan Price (1832 – 1892). He came from a very close and respected family who lived in in Varina, Henrico County, VA. This respected part was no mean feat considering his parents were freed slaves and his family were ‘coloreds’ living in Virginia in the Jim Crow Era. All the same, his family were respected members of the community.

His family were educated (i.e. could read and write) in a time when, regardless of ethnicity, not everyone was. By all accounts, the family lived up to the ideals the Roane surname instilled in them.

image of 1880 census return for Patrick Henry Roane

Caption: Patrick Henry Roane, Sr’s household in Varina, 1880 (Group 194) with Leonard, aged 6. Patrick’s brothers Anthony and Edmund Roane are living on the same property shared by their Smith, Allen and Waring relations. Citation: Census Year: 1880; Census Place: Varina, Henrico, Virginia; Archive Collection Number: T1132; Roll: 24; Line: 17; Schedule Type: Agriculture.

It’s only when Leonard left the family fold between 1896 and 1899 that he became somewhat tricky to find in the records. This is partly due to there being another Leonard Roane, on the white side of the family, who was born a few days before my great-grandfather – and who died a few days after my great-grandfather (bizarre or what?!).

Tricky though it may have been keeping records for these two men straight, I’ve been able to piece together a fairly straightforward narrative for Leonard.

Leonard’s Adult Life

Leonard married Julia Ella Bates, also a native of Varina, on 1 April 1896. They married in their hometown.

This part of Leonard and Julia’s story ignites my writer’s imagination. Had they been childhood sweethearts?You know, that young couple who had always known one another, grew up together, with a growing fondness for each other and deepening of feeling as they grew older. Did they exchange secret glances every Sunday at church? Did they blush when those looks were noticed by others? Were they teased by their siblings? I mention this because I can’t recall ever hearing stories of – or reading about – romantic accounts for African Americans in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. It’s very rarely broached in television shows or in Hollywood films. It’s just not part of the 19th and early 20th Century African American iconography. To be fair, it’s not an idea or ideal associated to any working class peoples, regardless of ethnicity.  Such sensibilities have more been associated with the wealthy and the elite.

I know, from the descendants of his brothers and sister, that Leonard’s parents had been childhood sweethearts. The marriages of his brothers and sisters indicate the same. I digress..

Not long after Leonard and Julia married, they moved to Newport News, VA. In the 1900 Census, Leonard is shown working at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newport_News_Shipbuilding_and_Dry_Dock_Company as a general laborer. His elder brother, Bacchus Roane, was already employed there, as were a number of their Essex County and King & Queen County Roane cousins.

The image below is a pretty fair representation of a large shipyard in the early 1900s. It certainly was a far cry from Leonard’s rural roots:

image of US shipbuilding yard, circa 1900

US shipbuilding yard, circa 1900

One of Leonard’s brothers, Wyatt Roane,  was a carrier for the Daily Press newspaper in Newport News and and didn’t live all that far from Leonard and Julia. Another brother, Patrick Henry Roane, Jr., was a nearby grocer. Leonard and Julia were pretty much surrounded by both immediate and extended family members. Again, the Roanes were a close-knit bunch.

These Roanes were part of that great early 20th Century migration which saw huge numbers of people trade their rural farming way of life for work in the industrial cities. Just like their cousins who left Virginia behind for cities in the north.

Leonard and Julia set up house at 2312 Jefferson Avenue:

image of 2312 Jefferson Ave  Newport News VA today

Sadly, the original house at 2312 Jefferson Avenue doesn’t exist any longer. The old properties were pulled down and replaced with a condominium community.

This would remain their home for the next decade. This is one of the great befits of using City Directories in your research. Here’s one of many that I’ve found for the period of 1902 – 1911 which shows Leonard and his Roane relations in Newport News:

Image of the Roane family in Newport News, VA in 1903 via City Directory

Roane family in Newport News, VA in 1903. Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

Directories like the above, when matched to census records, can be a great help in family research and genealogy – especially when there are popular names used within a family over many generations.

My grandmother, Susan Julia Roane, arrived in 1896. She was followed by her sister Ella Bates Roane in 1899.

image of 1900 Census return for Leonard Roane's houshold

Leonard’s name misspelled and given as Lemuel on the 1900 Census. Citation: Year: 1900; Census Place: Newport News Ward 2, Newport News City, Virginia; Roll: 1735; Page: 29A; Enumeration District: 0077; FHL microfilm: 1241735.

Julia Bates Roane passed on 16 December 1901. I haven’t located a death certificate to learn the cause of her untimely death at the age of 25. Given the family dynamic of the Roanes, I am certain that Leonard and his young daughters had plenty of support from their surrounding family members.

In 1906, Leonard married Abigail “Abbie” Smith of Varina, VA. I can almost image the family conversation: ‘You need a wife and your daughters need a mother. You remember little Abbie Smith, Pleasant’s daughter? Well, …’ The 1880 Agricultural census shows Abbie and her family lived next door to Julia’s family. Talk about a small world!

Image for 1880 census return showing Ella Bates householed

Ella [maiden name unknown] Bates’s household in 1880. Citation: Census Year: 1880; Census Place: Varina, Henrico, Virginia; Archive Collection Number: T1132; Roll: 24; Page: 36; Line: 29; Schedule Type: Agriculture.

Taking another look at the 1880 Census for Leonard’s family, Abbie Smith may have also been a Roane family relation. In other words, Leonard and his family had known Abbie for years.

There were two accounts, one by my grandmother and another by my great aunt Ella, that the relationship between them and their step-mother were strained and far from cordial.

image for Leonard Roane's household on the 1910 Census.

Leonard Roane’s household on the 1910 Census. Citation: Year: 1910; Census Place: Newport News Ward 2, Newport News (Independent City), Virginia; Roll: T624_1637; Page: 4B; Enumeration District: 0081; FHL microfilm: 1375650.

Leonard made advancements at the shipyard where he became an outdoor ship machinist at some point around 1908. I was a bit curious about what, exactly, this entailed. While it required skill and acumen, it was also dirty, sweaty and very dangerous work. If you’re interested in such things, here’s a training manual I found online: http://hnsa.org/doc/machinist/index.htm . While the manual is dated 1942, I can’t imagine the trade had changed much from Leonard’s day. Reading through it was a great way to connect with my great grandfather.

image for Leonard Roane's burial

On or about 20 December 1912, Leonard died. This would have a profound effect on his two daughters.

Whether she was incapable of looking after her step-daughters, or simply didn’t want to, my grandmother and her sister were split up. My grandmother, it would seem, went into service with a prominent white family in Richmond, VA at the age of 14. Her sister Ella, aged 11, was sent to Henrico County to live with Roane relations. Evidence would suggest Ella grew up in Harrison. Five years later, Ella married into the Christian family of Harrison, Charles County, VA.

Abbie would go on to marry widower Richard Lacy, a Harrison town resident, on 15 April 1917. They married in Harrison and that is where she seems to have remained. Yes, this is the same town where her former step-daughter Ella Roane, who by this time had married Thomas Matthew Christian, also lived. I can only imagine that must have been awkward for both. It was (and remains) a small place. They were bound to have seen one another more regularly than not when in public.

Search for a death record & accident report

Naturally, I’ve asked my father how his grandfather died. All he could say is that it was a shipyard accident. It was something his mother just couldn’t bring herself to talk about.

So I decided to do some sleuthing. Three years later and I have zilch. I’ve thrown everything I could think of at solving this one and have come up empty handed. But I can tell you just about everything about how the other Leonard Roane died. Family research does that sometimes.

I’ve put Ancestry.com and FamilySearch through their paces using all manner of esoteric search tricks….and nothing.

I’ve searched using every online news archive service available…and nothing. I figured a shipyard death would get at least a few lines in the local press. And then, when I thought about how many men died at shipyards at the turn of the 20th Century, I did feel kind of naïve.

I’ve used every combination of:  his name (including variations) + machinist death(s) + shipyard death(s), December 1912 +Newport news + Virginia + Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company that you could think of…and nothing.

Google Books…nothing.

And nothing on the online vital records service sites.

So I’ve had two last rolls of the dice. Both of them longshots. I’ve emailed the Clerks Office in Newport News enquiring if his death certificate exists, and, if does, how to obtain a copy. This is the most likely of the two options to return a result.

As a backup, I’ve emailed the Newport News Shipyard enquiring whether there is an accident report and/or company account of Leonard’s death. OK, so the likelihood that 1) a report/enquiry was done, and 2) that a 102 account or record still exists in the company archive is remote. Very remote. But I’m a big believer in ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’.

So we’ll see if either of these avenues provides any answers.

This information vacuum is all the more interesting in light of the obituaries for his brothers, which follow below. Again, it’s worth bearing in mind that obituaries for African Americans at this time were rare:

Patrick Henry Roane, Jr

image of Patrick Henry Roane Jr obituary

7 February 1907 obituary for Patrick Henry Roane, Jr.in the Daily Press. Courtesy of The Library of Virginia http://www.virginiachronicle.com Original available via http://virginiachronicle.com/cgi-bin/virginia?a=d&d=DP19070215.1.3&srpos=1&e=——190-en-20-DP-1–txt-IN-roane—-1907

Wyatt Roane

image for Wyatt Roane's obituary

22 March 1907 obituary in the Daily Press. Courtesy of The Library of Virginia @ http://virginiachronicle.com Original available via http://virginiachronicle.com/cgi-bin/virginia?a=d&d=DP19070322.1.3&e=——-en-20–1–txt-IN—–

Josephine Roane (sister-in-law, wife of Bacchus Roane)

image for Josephine Roane's obituary18 February 1909 obituary for Josephine Roane in the Daily Press. Courtesy of The Library of Virginia @ http://virginiachronicle.com Original available via http://virginiachronicle.com/cgi-bin/virginia?a=d&d=DP19090218.1.3&e=——190-en-20–1–txt-IN-josephine+roane—-#

In closing, I can’t help but note that Leonard, Wyatt and Patrick, Jr. all died tragically premature deaths. Leonard was dead at 38, Patrick at 44 and Wyatt at 38. Bacchus was 50 when he died – by Roane standards that was still quite young. Like their relations in Baltimore and Philadelphia, Leonard and his brothers life expectancy was cut by a third when compared to other male Roane relations who remained in the countryside.

However, to leave on a positive note, the obituaries above illustrate just how well thought of my Roane ancestors were.

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